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Mill work and flax growers in Ireland

Working in the linen mills. Spinning Wheel Entitlement Lists. Flax Growers Bounty

Irish Linen Mills

Irish Linen Hall, Clonakilty, co Cork.
Clonakilty's Linen Hall
In the Irish Linen Homelands of Northern Ireland (chiefly around Lisburn, Belfast, Banbridge and Cookstown), the work of transforming the flax plant into yarn and then into beautiful cloth, eventually moved into huge mills.

See the job titles used in the production of the mills (in the right hand column). These are the terms you're likely to see in census returns and other documents.

For most factory and mill employees, the working week consisted of eleven and a half or twelve hours (including meal breaks) from Monday to Friday plus a half day of six hours on Saturday.

Clonakilty's linen market

Although Northern Ireland became known as the Linen Homelands, the flax plant was grown in other parts of the island and there were many big mills outside Ulster. In the early 1800s, one of the largest, certainly the largest in Munster, was in Clonakilty, co Cork. It was owned by an Englishman called Dr Elmore and located in Mill Street.

Clonakilty already had a successful association with linen production and even by the 1740s considerable quantities of coarse yarn were being sold at the Friday market. As sales grew, a dedicated Linen Hall was built and by the early 1820s the industry employed more than 10,000 people in the surrounding districts.

Pigot's Directory of 1824 contained the following comments about the local industry: "The description of goods manufactured here is peculiar to the county of Cork and called vitries and twills; these are from three quarters to a yard wide and the average in price is from 41/2d to 8d per yard.

"The market is regularly attended by purchasers from Cork and Bandon who buy on commission for the English and Scotch houses; and the weekly sales are computed at upwards of £1,000. The market is superintended by Mr.Henry Franks, senior seal master."

It was also noted that apart from Dr Elmore's large factory, most local trade was carried on by persons "of small capital", employing one to four looms.

In terms of holiday, workers could take two days for Christmas, two days at Easter and two more days in July. Holiday breaks were not paid.

These terms of employment applied to most staff over the age of thirteen.

Children were legally permitted to work at the mills from about the age of ten years on a part-time basis. They usually spent alternate days at the mill, typically working as doffers (replacing full yarn bobbins on the spinning frames with empty ones), and in the classroom. When they first started work, many suffered what became known as 'mill fever' before they adjusted to the high temperatures, damp or dusty environments, noise and exhaustion.

The scutching room was one of the most unhealthy because the air was filled with dry flax plant dust called 'pouce' and workers could not avoid inhaling it. As it settled in the lungs, it caused shortness of breath and many bronchial complaints.

The hackling and carding rooms were the most dangerous because the machines were not properly guarded. Facial and hand injuries, ranging from lacerations to mutilations, were the most common but fatal accidents were also a regular occurrence.

Bleaching Green, County Antrim.
A bleaching green in County Antrim

One of the dirtiest places to work in the mill was the spinning room. Temperatures were hot and humid and workers tended to be barefoot. In a study into the health of mill workers in 1852, it was found that spinning room workers were suffering from 'onychia and other diseases of the great toe nail' as a result of their feet getting wet with water impregnated with brass and other metals. They were also found to suffer skin problems.

In the weaving shed, noise and humidity were the main discomforts to be endured. The noise was caused by the carding machines, the looms and shuttles, while the dampness and heat was fed in to create the conditions needed for weaving yarn. But at least weavers had the satisfaction of earning higher wage rates than other mill workers.

With such unhealthy work, the mortality rate in the spinning mills and weaving factories was high. In the late 19th century, the average working life was 16.8 years.

Bleachers worked at the bleachworks where serious accidents and incidences of fever were fewer than in the spinning mills and weaving factories. Even so, the work was backbreaking. Longer summer daylight hours meant bleachers often worked from 5.30am to 6pm Monday to Friday and 5.30am to 3pm on Saturdays. Less than two hours were allowed for breakfast and dinner. These long days helped to subsidise the shorter working hours of winter.

Spinning Wheel Entitlement List 1796

In 1796, the Irish Linen Board published its Spinning Wheel Entitlement List (also known as the Flax Growers Bounty or the Irish Flax Growers List), one of several lists created in response to special initiatives by the Government to encourage the production of linen. Nearly all these initiatives involved giving away spinning wheels and looms to individuals. This list was no exception.

It includes the names of persons who had cultivated a specified acreage of flax plant. Those who had planted one acre were awarded four spinning wheels while five acres of flax plant was rewarded with a loom.

Due to the dearth of pre-1800s nationwide resources for genealogists, this 1796 list is worth consulting as part of your family history research even though it contains no mention of townlands.

It is arranged by civil parish (and occasionally only the barony) and contains the names of nearly 60,000 individuals in all counties of Ireland except Dublin and Wicklow who had sown the required acreages of flax plant.

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Mill workers – job titles

These are some of the job titles given to mill workers right up to the 20th century:

  • Ap iron turner
  • Carder
  • Carding master
  • Carpenter
  • Cleaner
  • Doffer
  • Drawer
  • Doubler
  • Fitter
  • Flax looser
  • Hackler
  • Layer
  • Lorry driver
  • Oiler
  • Packer
  • Piecer
  • Reeler
  • Ring oiler
  • Rover
  • Screwer
  • Spinner
  • Spreader
  • Stormean
  • Sweeper
  • Tenter
  • Tippler
  • Tow baler
  • Trucker
  • Winder
  • Yarn boy
  • Yarn counter
  • Yarn tucker.

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